Freeport Community Services recently benefited from a donation from the Cleaning Authority of about 1,000 pounds of food. Courtesy Freeport Community Services

FREEPORT — Freeport Community Services has seen a decline in traffic at its food pantry, but the summer food program it coordinates with Regional School Unit 5 has seen a large uptick in usage, due largely to greater ease of access and relaxed restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The pantry typically saw about 100 households a week prior to the COVID-19 outbrreak; during the pandemic it gradually fell to about 60, according to Freeport Community Services Director of Programs Sarah Lundin. She credits that decline to an increase in the availability of help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) in response to the health and economic crisis, as well as unemployment benefits.

But Lundin said the numbers have started to climb again, reaching about 70 households.

“I certainly anticipate that once these safety net resources that have been put in, in response to COVID, go away … we’ll definitely see our numbers increase,” Lundin said, noting that the average number of households is now up to 70. “Certainly over the past couple weeks I’m starting to see a few folks that I haven’t seen for a while coming back.”

Freeport Community Services partners with local gleaners which, along with fresh produce, have provided hundreds of seedlings that farms have been unable to sell. Many pantry clients are picking up those seedlings to use in home gardens, Lundin said.

She praised “an incredible amount of generosity from the community” that’s helped to remain stocked. The Freeport-based Cleaning Authority held a food drive recently that brought in about 1,000 pounds of food, Lundin said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provides food, but the pantry could use a greater supply of staples such as cereal and pasta.

The pantry, located at 53 Depot St., is open Mondays and Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Call 865-3985 for more information.

Student meals

RSU 5 is spearheading the summer food program; school staff prepare the meals, while Freeport Community Services delivers food to families that can’t pick up meals and collects data to report to the state.

Nearly 26,000 meals were served in June, with about 450 families picking up breakfasts and lunches together in a given day, Lundin said. That number has risen more than seven-fold from about 60 per day a year ago. Program funding comes from the Maine Department of Education, which operates under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Lundin said. The program reimburses about $3.30 per meal, which is generally in line with the cost of the meals, she explained.

Families can pick up meals at one of three locations – Freeport Middle School, 7-11 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, Durham Community School Tuesdays and Thursdays from 8:30-11 a.m., and Pownal Elementary School Wednesdays and Fridays from 7-11 a.m.

The program last year had stricter guidelines, such as where meals could be served. Children had to go to one of two low-income housing locations, since the area served had to have at least 50% of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to Erin Dow, RSU 5’s nutrition director.

Students would go to the sites five days a week and eat the meal there, as opposed to this year’s allowance of being able to pick up the food twice a week and bring it home. “To get the public to come to one of those sites (had been) difficult, because they’re just not familiar with it,” Lundin said.

Those guidelines have been waived this year in light of the pandemic, making it easier for families to access the meals, Lundin said. And they can obtain several days’ worth of meals at a time in order to get students through the week, versus having to go to the meal site each day.

“Basically everything we’re doing now, we’re not allowed to do in a normal year,” Lundin said, “which is why it’s so successful.”

“Having the familiarity of being able to go to one of the schools in the district, rather than having to go into what people probably perceive as somebody’s dooryard, to pick up meals, has helped,” Dow said. “We’ve done a lot of outreach to de-stigmatize the free meals, and let people know that it’s not just for impoverished families.”

There are no residency or income requirements this year; the meals just have to go to youths 18 or younger. Teachers have picked up meals as they home-schooled their children, Dow said. That provided a convenience, she noted, but also peace of mind that if parents couldn’t make it to the grocery store, their children had alternative access to a week’s worth of breakfasts and lunches.

Dow praised her staff for continuing to work through the summer, a time they normally have off, to support the program.

Thrift shop

Meanwhile, Freeport Community Services’s thrift shop, forced to close at the outset of the pandemic, reopened last month. It had generated 35-40%, or about $26,000 a month, of the organization’s revenue, which funds its operating costs and programs, according to Executive Director Paula Paladino.

With a steady stream of customers, daily revenue now is about the same as before – a little more than $1,000, Lundin said. But the thrift shop is now only open Tuesdays and Fridays from noon to 5 p.m., versus Monday-Saturday before COVID-19 – due to limited staffing under stricter safety protocols – so less overall revenue is coming in.

Donations are accepted at the 53 Depot St. thrift shop Tuesdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“People are donating, and people are coming by,” Lundin said. “We’re so happy to be able to see so many familiar faces.”

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